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Dhammakaya Movement

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Dhammakaya Movement
TypeBuddhist Tradition
SchoolTheravada, Maha Nikaya
Foundedc. 1916; Thailand
FounderLuang Pu Sodh Candasaro
TeachingsDhammakaya Meditation
Notable TemplesWat Paknam Bhasicharoen
Wat Phra Dhammakaya
Wat Luang Phor Sodh Dhammakayaram
Notable PeopleLuang Por Dhammajayo
Luang Por Dattajivo
Luang Por Sermchai Jayamangalo Chandra Khonnokyoong

The Dhammakaya Movement or Dhammakaya tradition is a Thai Buddhist tradition which was started by Luang Pu Sodh Candasaro in the early 20th century. It is connected to several temples which refer back to Wat Paknam Bhasicharoen in Bangkok for their ancestry. The movement practices Dhammakaya meditation (Vijja Dhammakaya), a form of meditation which scholars have linked to the Yogavacara tradition. Central to the movement is the idea that Dhammakaya meditation was the method through which the Buddha became enlightened. The movement is known for teaching that there is a "true self" connected with Nirvana, a belief the majority of the Thai Theravada community considers unorthodox. The Dhammakaya movement is seen by its followers as a form of Buddhist revivalism pioneered by Luang Pu Sodh Candasaro.

The tradition stands out from other Thai Buddhist traditions for its teachings on the Buddhist concept of Dhammakaya, its emphasis on meditation for laypeople, its active style of propagating meditation, and its focus on reviving traditional Buddhist values. The movement opposes traditional magical rituals, superstition, fortune telling, and other religious practices. Features of the tradition include teaching meditation in a group, teaching meditation during ceremonies, teaching meditation simultaneously to monastics and lay people, teaching one main meditation method, and an emphasis on lifelong ordination.


Dhammakaya means 'Dhamma body', referring to an "inner Buddha nature".[1] The term refers to a modern Buddhist tradition that has emerged in Thailand, whose goal is to reach the state of dhammakaya through meditation. Newell has pointed out that the term Dhammakaya Movement is problematic, because it has been used "without distinguishing between the various temples practising dhammakaya meditation and Wat Dhammakaya [sic] itself. (...) There are considerable differences in style, practice and structure of all the temples". She prefers to use the term Dhammakaya temples.[2] She is quoted on this by McDaniel, but he nevertheless uses Dhammakaya Movement.[3] Crosby, on the other hand, uses Dhammakaya network.[4] Thus, scholars have often pointed out the differences and some dissension among the temples.[5][6][7]


Scholars have theorized that the Dhammakaya movement has its roots in the Yogavacara tradition (also known as tantric Theravada).[8][9][10] The movement was started by Luang Pu Sodh Candasaro in the early twentieth century.[11] The movement is connected to several temples which refer back to Wat Paknam Bhasicharoen in Bangkok for their ancestry.[12] After discovering the Dhammakaya meditation approach, Luang Pu Sodh first taught it to others at Wat Bangpla, Bang Len District, Nakhon Pathom.[13] Since Luang Pu Sodh was given his first position as abbot at Wat Paknam, Dhammakaya meditation has been associated with this temple. Luang Por Dhammajayo and Luang Por Dattajivo, the current abbot and vice-abbot of Wat Phra Dhammakaya, were students of maechi (nun) Chandra Khonnokyoong. Other temples, such as Wat Luang Phor Sodh Dhammakayaram, also have their roots in Wat Paknam.[12] Thus, Dhammakaya meditation has been taught by Luang Pu Sodh's students at Wat Paknam Bhasicharoen, Wat Phra Dhammakaya, Wat Luang Por Sodh Dhammakayaram, and at Wat Rajorasarama, as well as at the respective branches of these temples. Apart from these major temples, there are also several other centers that practice in the tradition of Luang Pu Sodh.[14]

Notable temples[edit]

Wat Paknam Bhasicharoen[edit]

Somdet Chuang Varapuñño from Wat Paknam Bhasicharoen [left] and Luang Por Dattajivo from Wat Phra Dhammakaya [right]

Wat Paknam Bhasicharoen (Thai: วัดปากน้ำภาษีเจริญ) is a royal wat located in Phasi Charoen District, Bangkok, at the Chao Phraya River.[15] Wat Paknam Bhasicharoen is the temple where Luang Pu Sodh Candasaro used to be the abbot, and still is known for its meditation lessons.[11][16] The temple underwent a major change during the period that Luang Pu Sodh Candasaro became the temple's abbot, from a temple with only thirteen monks that was in disrepair, to a prosperous center of education and meditation practice. In 2008, it housed two hundred to four hundred monks, eighty to ninety samanera (young novices) and two hundred to three hundred maechis (nuns). As of 2008, the temple's abbot was Somdet Chuang Varapuñño, who was the acting Supreme Patriarch of Thailand (Sangharaja) from 2013 to 2017.[6] In 2015, he was proposed by the Sangha Supreme Council as the new Supreme Patriarch, but the appointment was stalled by the junta, which cited objections by several influential former leaders of the 2014 coup d'état.[17] The appointment was eventually withdrawn and a monk from the Dhammayuttika Nikaya appointed instead after the junta changed the law to allow the King to appoint the Supreme Patriarch directly, with the Prime Minister countersigning.[18]

Wat Phra Dhammakaya[edit]

Wat Phra Dhammakaya is located in Pathum Thani, north of Bangkok. It was founded by Maechi Chandra Khonnokyoong and Luang Por Dhammajayo. It is the temple that is most well-known in the Dhammakaya Movement because of its huge size and following, its numerous activities and also its controversies. The temple is popular among the Bangkok middle class, and organizes many training programs. The temple emphasizes merit-making through meditation, giving and volunteering.[19] As of 2017, the temple's worldwide following was estimated at three million practitioners.[20] The community living at Wat Phra Dhammakaya numbered more than a thousand monks and novices, and hundreds of full-time lay employees.[21] The temple emphasizes the revival of traditional Buddhist values, but does so through modern methods and technology.[22][23] The temple emphasizes personal transformation, expressed through its slogan "World Peace through Inner Peace".[24] The temple offers English language retreats and ordinations.[25][26][27]

Initially, the temple was founded as a meditation center, after Maechi Chandra and the just ordained monk Luang Por Dhammajayo could no longer accommodate the rising number of participants in their activities at Wat Paknam Bhasicharoen. The center became an official temple in 1977.[28][29] The temple grew exponentially during the 1980s, when the temple's training programs became widely known among the urban middle class.[28][30] Wat Phra Dhammakaya expanded its area and the building of a huge stupa (pagoda) was started.[31] During the period of the Asian economical crisis, however, the temple became subject to criticism as Luang Por Dhammajayo was charged with embezzlement and removed from his office as abbot. In 2006, he was cleared of these charges and he was restored as abbot.[32] The temple grew further and became known for its activities in education, promotion of ethics, and scholarship projects.[33][34][35] Under the 2014 military junta, the abbot and the temple were put under scrutiny again and Luang Por Dhammajayo was accused of receiving stolen money through the donations of a supporter.[36] The temple has been referred to as the only influential organization in Thailand that has yet to be subdued by the ruling junta, which has shut down most opposition since it took power.[37][20] The judicial processes against the abbot and the temple since the 1990s have led to much debate regarding the procedures and role of the state towards religion, a debate that has intensified during the 2017 lockdown of the temple by the junta.[38][39] As of 2017, authorities have not found Luang Por Dhammajayo, and in 2018, Phrakhru Sangharak Rangsarit was assigned as the official abbot instead.[40][41]

Wat Phra Dhammakaya emphasizes a culture of making merit through doing good deeds and meditation, as well as an ethical outlook on life.[42][43][44] The temple promotes a community of kalyanamittas ('good friends') to accomplish such a culture.[45][46] Although the temple emphasizes traditional Buddhist values, modern methods of propagation are used, such as a satellite television station and a distance-learning university, as well as modern management methods.[47][48][49] In its large temple complex, the temple houses several monuments and memorials, and in its construction designs traditional Buddhist concepts are given modern forms, as the temple envisions itself as a global spiritual center.[50][51][24]

Wat Rajorasarama[edit]

Luang Por Thongdi Suratejo from Wat Rajorasarama

Wat Rajorasarama (or for short, Wat Rajaoros; literally 'the temple of the King's son'), Bang Khun Thian District, Bangkok, originates from the Ayutthaya Kingdom era. It became a royal temple, figuring in the history of the Chakri dynasty when Prince Rama III resided and held a ceremony there to prepare for an attack during the Burmese–Siamese wars. After having spent a while at the temple preparing, the attack did not happen. Nevertheless, Rama III repaid his gratitude to the temple by renovating it from 1817 to 1831.[52][53][54] During the renovations, texts about traditional Thai medicine and massage were carved in the temple's walls. This was done in Wat Pho as well, making for a total of thousand inscriptions, meant as a storehouse of ancient knowledge which Rama III feared might be lost during the wars.[55][56] When the renovations had started, he dedicated the temple to his father Rama II, who renamed the temple "Wat Rajorasarama".[57] The temple is often described as "the temple of King Rama III", citing his stay there during the Burmese–Siamese Wars, and the subsequent construction he started there.[57] However, in reality, Rama III grew up in the area of Wat Chomthong, not in the palace, and was therefore familiar with the temple from his childhood onward.[58]

In the 1950s, the temple was nearly abandoned and derelict. After the appointment of Luang Por Thongdi Suratejo as abbot in 1982, and with financial help from the government, the temple was greatly renovated.[59] Luang Por Thongdi spent many years at Wat Paknam, completing his Pali studies there to the highest level. He held several positions in the Thai Sangha before being appointed as a member of the Supreme Sangha Council in 1992. He is well-known in Thailand for his encyclopedias and books, of which he has published over twenty, under his honorary names.[60][59]

In 2001, Luang Por Thongdi made headlines when he was suddenly removed from the Sangha Council, because the Supreme Patriarch felt he "acted against the decisions of the council". During that period, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra had announced several reforms of the Monastic Act, aiming for a Sangha that is more independent of the government. Luang Por Thongdi expressed his disagreement with the proposed reforms by publishing a book about them. He stated the Sangha Council was rash in its decisions, and doubted whether the monastic establishment was ready to be self-reliant. A network run by scholars and devotees stated the book was inappropriate and they pleaded with the Sangha Council to act.[61][62] As soon as Luang Por Thongdi was removed from the office, practitioners of Wat Phra Dhammakaya and students of Wat Rajaoros' school protested against the decision, but Luang Por Thongdi asked them to stop in order not to express contempt of the Supreme Patriarch.[note 1] Meanwhile, PM Thaksin admitted he was "shocked" by the Supreme Patriarch's decision. Whereas the network of critics stated Luang por Thongdi "always had opposing views" and caused division, the head of the Religious Affairs Department responded "monks should have the right to air their views".[62][63][64] When Luang Por Thongdi himself was asked how he felt about the decision, he replied "We are born in this world without anything [without position or possessions]. Having been a member of the Sangha Council, I have served Buddhism, which is the highest good in life. (...) The right thing to do [now] is to accept the decision made [by the Supreme Patriarch]".[62] Luang Por Thongdi also clarified that he was not opposed to reform and more independence from the government, but the Sangha should still have an important role in moral education, which he felt was overlooked in the reforms.[65][66]

Wat Luang Phor Sodh Dhammakayaram[edit]

Somdet Chuang Varapuñño from Wat Paknam Bhasicharoen presiding over a ceremony

In 1982, Luang Por Sermchai Jayamangalo and Phra Khru Bart Yanathiro established the Buddhabhavana Vijja Dhammakaya Institute, distancing itself from Wat Phra Dhammakaya.[67][68][69] In 1991, the institute was changed into a temple.[70] It is located in Ratchaburi Province, west of Bangkok, and is currently led by Luang Por Sermchai, who was formerly a lay meditation teacher at Wat Paknam, and a researcher and lecturer.[71][72] Many of the temple's activities are done in cooperation with Wat Saket.[73] Luang Por Sermchai teaches regularly to government departments, companies, and other temples.[74] In 2004, Luang Por Sermchai made headlines when he criticized the government's policy on legalizing gambling during a preaching on a radio program. After some members of the government responded with displeasure, a screening process for preaching on the radio was established.[75][76] Luang Por Sermchai defended the radio broadcast, stating that his criticism referred to society in general, not just the government.[74]

In 2006, there were seventy monks and thirty-three novices at the temple.[71] Phra Khru Bart was a western monk who organized exchange student programs and gave meditation instruction and retreats in English language. English instruction is still available, though Phra Khru Bart has since died.[27][72] In Thai language, the temple offers retreats, monastic ordination programs, and study retreats for families.[77] The temple also runs its own school with Pali and Dhamma studies.[70]

Apart from an ubosot hall (central hall for ordinations), the temple also has a memorial hall in honor of Luang Pu Sodh. In 2006, the temple started building a stupa (mound-like shaped monument). The stupa will be four storeys high, and will contain meditation rooms, Buddha images, and relics.[70][78] As of 2014, the stupa was expected to be finished in two years.[79]


Revivalist school[edit]

Despite having been included in the controversial[80] global Fundamentalism Project studies,[81] many scholars do not regard the movement as a fundamentalist movement, but rather as a movement with revivalist characteristics. Whether the movement is a new movement is a matter of debate; Wat Phra Dhammakaya, for one, has specifically said that they do not want to start a new fraternity (nikaya).[82][83] Central to the movement is the idea that Dhammakaya meditation was the method through which the Buddha became enlightened, a method which was forgotten but has been revived by Luang Pu Sodh Candasaro. This method is called Vijja Dhammakaya.[84][85][86]

There are multiple temples in the tradition which have expressed opposition to traditional magical rituals, fortune telling and giving lottery numbers.[87][88][89] According to a biography published by Wat Phra Dhammakaya's publishing division, Luang Pu Sodh held similar attitudes. He is, however, described as healing people through meditation, and Luang Pu Sodh's amulets were—and are still—widely venerated for their powers.[90] The movement does not oppose miracles that are connected with the practice of meditation.[91]

Tantric Theravada[edit]

Since the 2000s, scholars have brought forward new evidence that Luang Pu Sodh's approach may have roots in the Yogavacara tradition (also known as tantric Theravada; not to be confused with the Yogacara School in Mahayana Buddhism).[6][92][93] During the revival and modernization of Thai Buddhism in the nineteenth and early twentieth century CE, Thai temples in the Mahanikaya fraternity were forced to adjust to new reforms, including the meditation method used and taught.[94] In particular, leading monks in the Mahanikaya fraternity promoted the New Burmese method of U Narada and Mahasi Sayadaw. The Dhammakaya meditation method managed to survive despite these pressures to reform.[95] Therefore, Dhammakaya and Yogavacara meditation are both meditation forms that date back before these modernization efforts, and scholars have theorized that the two disciplines may share a common ancestry.[92][96] This ancestry would be related to Wat Rajasittharam, the temple where Luang Pu Sodh used to practice before he went on to develop Dhammakaya meditation.[97][98] An alternative theory suggests an origin in Tibetan or other forms of Mahayana Buddhism,[99][100] but scholars C.S. Newell and Phibul Choompolpaisal believe a Yogavacara origin to be more likely. Newell notes that some aspects of Dhammakaya meditation cannot be found in Yogavacara practices, and theorizes that Dhammakaya meditation could have been "grafted onto an existing, preparatory system of concentration" and further developed.[8][101] Theologist Rory Mackenzie does not draw any conclusions about the matter yet, however: he states a Tibetan origin is unlikely, a Yogavacara origin cannot yet be proven, but a new discovery by Luang Pu Sodh is also "quite possible".[102]

Dhammakaya meditation and True Self[edit]

Meditation is at the most important practice of all major temples in the Dhammakaya Movement. It is the concept of Dhammakaya that makes the movement stand out from other forms of Theravada,[103][104] as the movement believes that all meditation methods lead to the attainment of the Dhammakaya, and this is the only way to Nirvana.[105] According to the Dhammakaya Movement, the Buddha made the discovery that nirvana is nothing less than the true Self. The movement calls this true self the Dhammakaya, the spiritual essence.[106][107] The Movement believes that this essence of the Buddha and Nirvana exist as a literal reality within each individual.[108][109][110] The not-self teaching is considered by the movement a means to let go of what is not the self, to attain the true self.[111]

According to Paul Williams, in some respects the teachings of the Dhammakaya Movement resemble the Buddha-nature and Trikaya doctrines of Mahayana Buddhism. He sees the Dhammakaya Movement as having developed independently of the Mahayana tathagatagarbha tradition, but as achieving very similar results in their understanding of Buddhism.[112] According to Williams,

[Dhammakaya] meditations involve the realization, when the mind reaches its purest state, of an unconditioned "Dhamma Body" (dhammakaya) in the form of a luminous, radiant and clear Buddha figure free of all defilements and situated within the body of the practitioner. Nirvana is the true Self, and this is also the dhammakaya." [113]

The bulk of Thai Theravada Buddhism rejects the true-self teaching of Dhammakaya, and insists upon non-self as Buddha's real teaching. Therefore, some of the Thai Buddhist institutions consider the ideas of the movement about self and non-self heretical or at least controversial,[114] an opinion also shared by several Thai scholars, among which Patchanee Malikhao[115] and Prayudh Payutto, who has written much about this topic.[116] For its beliefs and its methods of propagating these ideas, some western scholars have compared the movement to fundamentalistic, revivalist traditions with modernistic reinterpretations such as those found in Christianity.[117]

According to Luang Por Sermchai, it tends to be scholars who hold the view of absolute non-self, whereas Thai meditation masters (or, in his words "several distinguished forest hermit monks") do hold Nirvana as true self. He further states that Nirvana cannot be not-self because it not a compounded and conditioned phenomenon.[118] Williams summarizes the views of Luang Por Sermchai and states that these ways of reading Buddhism in terms of "... a true Self certainly seem to have been congenial in the East Asian environment, and hence flourished in that context where for complex reasons Mahayana too found a ready home". According to Williams, the Dhammakaya-related debate in Thailand leads to an appreciation that

"... there are now and have been in history Buddhists who in good faith accept some sort of teaching of the Self and argue that a true Self was the ultimate purport of Buddhist teaching. Any scholarly account of Buddhist doctrine as it has existed in history in its totality has to accept diversity on the issue, even if it is true that the not-Self advocates appear to have been in the overwhelming majority".[118]

The Dhammakaya Movement has responded in different ways to the debate of self and not-self. Apart from Luang Por Sermchai, Wat Phra Dhammakaya's assistant-abbot Luang phi Thanavuddho wrote a book about the topic in response to critics.[19][119] Nevertheless, the movement generally seems not much interested in the discussion. Followers are more concerned how Dhammakaya meditation improves their mind.[120] Apart from the true self, the Dhammakaya Movement often uses other positive terms to describe Nirvana as well. Scott notes that the Dhammakaya Movement often explains Nirvana as being the supreme happiness, and argues that this may explain why the practice of Dhammakaya meditation is so popular.[121]

Methods of propagation[edit]

Luang Pu Sodh introduced Dhammakaya meditation, which is the core of the Dhammakaya movement. Besides the technique of meditation itself, the methods through which Luang Pu Sodh taught have also been passed on to the main temples in the movement. The movement has an active style of propagation.[122] Teaching meditation in a group, teaching meditation during ceremonies, teaching meditation simultaneously to monastics and lay people, and teaching one main meditation method to all are features which can be found throughout the movement.[123][124][125]

Newell relates that Luang Pu Sodh was the person who set up the maechi community at Wat Paknam,[126] which is currently one of the largest maechi communities in Thailand.[127] Although Luang Pu Sodh encouraged women to become maechis, maechis did have to spend quite some time doing domestic activities, more so than monks. This orientation echoes in Wat Phra Dhammakaya's approach to female spirituality, praising Maechi Chandra as an example of a meditation master, but at the same time not supporting the Bhikkhuni ordination movement.[128]

Besides Wat Paknam's attitudes with regard to female spirituality, Wat Paknam's international orientation also became part of its heritage.[129] The temple ordained several monks coming from the United Kingdom,[130] and maintained relations with Japanese Buddhists.[131] Currently, Wat Paknam has branch centers in the United States, Japan and New Zealand.[132] This international orientation was also continued through the work of Wat Phra Dhammakaya, which, as of 2010, had thirty to fifty international centers,[133][134] and through the work of Wat Luang Phor Sodh Dhammakayaram, which has two branch centers in Malaysia.[135] Of all Thai Buddhist temples and movements, the Dhammakaya movement has an international presence that is one of the strongest.[136] A characteristic that is also found both in Wat Paknam and other temples in Luang Pu Sodh's tradition, is its emphasis on lifelong ordination.[137]

The first generation of students[edit]

Maechi Thongsuk Samdaengpan[edit]

Maechi Thongsuk (1900–1963) was a nun well-known for her meditation teaching. She was born on 1 August 1900 at Baan Saphan Lueang, Bangrak District, Bangkok. She was the third born to her father Rom and mother Wan. She was separated from her parents at an early age, being adopted by her uncle and aunt instead. She had no formal education and was illiterate. She married a surgeon at Chulalongkorn Hospital. They had two children together before the untimely death of her husband, after which she had to support herself and her children by working as a salesperson.[138]

In 1930, Thongsuk Samdaengpan started to study meditation at Wat Paknam Bhasicharoen under the instruction of Luang Pu Sodh. As a laywoman, and later as a maechi, she taught high-profile supporters of Wat Paknam Bhasicharoen, such as Liap Sikanchananand. It was at Liap's house that Maechi Thongsuk met Chandra Khonnokyoong, who she taught Dhammakaya meditation. After the two stayed for a month at Wat Paknam, they both ordained as maechis. Maechi Thongsuk travelled around Thailand to spread the Dhamma and teach Dhammakaya Meditation according to the policy of Luang Pu Sodh. Maechi Thongsuk was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1960, and died of it on 3 February 1963 at Wat Paknam Bhasicharoen. She was aged sixty-three, having been a maechi for twenty-five years.[139]

Maechi Chandra Khonnokyoong[edit]

Maechi Chandra (1909–2000) became strongly interested in meditation when she was still a child, after she was cursed by her drunken father. After he died, she wished to reconcile with him through contacting him in the afterlife. In 1935, she went to Bangkok to work and find a way to meet Luang Pu Sodh. After she met Maechi Thongsuk and learnt meditation from her, she ordained at Wat Paknam.[140][141] She later became a prominent meditation student of Luang Pu Sodh. After Luang Pu Sodh's death, she became instrumental in introducing Dhammakaya meditation to Luang Por Dhammajayo and Luang Por Dattajivo, with whom she later founded Wat Phra Dhammakaya.[142][69]


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Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]